A cultural bridge – an opportunity to share their way of life with those who may not understand it. That’s what Charlotte and Nick Hockings hoped to do when they created the Wa-Swa-Goning Indian Village about 20 years ago.
Wa-Swa-Goning literally translated means “The place where they spear fish by torchlight.”
“We don’t give you a history, we give you our story,” Nick said. “I think historically a lot of problems have been caused by our misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about other cultures, other peoples. I think many conflicts around the world usually come about because we don’t have a true understanding about what the issues are, especially about a particular culture.”
With an understanding comes an appreciation and respect – the cornerstones of friendship.
“Understanding is that first step towards friendship. And when we have friendship, we are open to the diversity of the other and we make it a part of our lives. When we see the diversity of others and make it a part of ourselves, we weave that web of one community of one earth,” Sister Rose Heil, FSP, said. Heil promotes diversity and acceptance by bringing people to Wa-Swa-Goning, visiting with the tribal elders on the reservation and working on coalitions to empower people for a healthy life.
“I see this place as a bridge builder – from the past to the present, from one people to another people, from one’s own self to one’s roots. That’s so vital today,” Heil said.
The guided tours do more than demonstrate life before the European arrival – they keep the Native American culture alive and explain the “why” behind Ojibwe traditions to guests.
“Education is everything. If you don’t understand, you’re always going to have that wariness and anxiety and fear around it. And so many times people are really afraid because they don’t know what’s right or wrong to approach a native person,” Linda Albers, Wa-Swa-Goning tour guide of 15 years, said.
The beautiful part of the Wa-Swa-Goning Indian Village was that the need for it was evident not only to the Hockings, but to the surrounding area as well.
“When I built this place 20 years ago, it was primarily volunteers from Woodruff and Minocqua and Rhinelander, all over, that actually came here and helped put this thing together. That’s how much other people thought it was important, too,” Nick said.
Taking the tour
Taking the guided tour allows guests to walk through the seasons and learn how Native Americans adapted to climate change over the year.
“We’re a migratory people, us Ojibwe from the Wa-Swa-Goning area. We moved around at least four times a year going to the areas that had more food, resources that were more plentiful at that time of the year,” Bob Hudak, tour guide, said.
At the replica of an Ojibwe summer camp, guests learn about how Ojibwe people socialized, gathered and preserved food, games that were played and much more.
“Very importantly, we didn’t have a written language. All of these things are teachings,” Hudak said.
The summer camp was the largest gathering of people, with several hundred families together for the season, as Hudak described.
“The Ojibwe people vary between the second and third largest group of indigenous people on the North American continent, so we certainly are quite numerous. There’s Ojibwe people all the way over to North Dakota, Montana and Canada,” Hudak said.
While being in such close proximity to one another, summer was the time to enjoy one another’s company through games, like lacrosse and double-ball. Double-ball was played by women, and lacrosse was the men’s game that carried more than an entertainment factor – it was a ceremony and also a means to end arguments.
“The Ojibwe people remember our original teachings. Life is sacred, we should not be killing anyone. So basically lacrosse was a way for settling disputes versus going into battle and having to kill someone,” Hudak said.
The next stop holds a birch bark canoe and an explanation of its importance to the Ojibwe.
“Us Ojibwe people were occupying the area over by Maine, New Brunswick prior to the arrival of Columbus,” Hudak said. “We were told by the spirit world that there would be a light-skinned race arriving that was going to be harmful to our way of life as we knew it at that time. We were told to go westward along the waters, following the different signs until we came to the place where food grew on water.”
Their 500-year migration led them here, where they found that sign – wild rice that grows on water. The journey was not an easy one, and the Ojibwe encountered other tribes that “forgot their original teachings and became very warlike.”
“Us Ojibwe people did win a majority of those battles. We remain here to this day; everybody else moved away,” Hudak said.
The advantage? Lightweight birch bark canoes that were easy to portage and maneuver.
“When we’re going to gather the materials [to build the canoe], we need to thank the spirit world, very importantly, but we also need to acknowledge the plant or animal,” Hudak said. “There’s a longer amount of time when gathering these materials, and there’s specific ceremonies we do.”
Continuing on with the tour, guests have the chance to feel in their own hands what the early Native American tools were like and learn about how they were made – bows, different types of arrows and their uses, flint, raw Great Lakes copper and more.
When food was less abundant and the climate much more harsh, settlements were far more spread out.
“During the winter time, it was not uncommon for an Ojibwe person to die from starvation. It didn’t mean that it always happened, but it was certainly something we had to contend with,” Hudak said.
One valuable food they did have that helped get them through the long winter months was maple sugar.
“That maple sugar is considered to be a very important gift from God. It’s full of all kinds of nutrients and minerals and would help sustain us until our food sources started returning. Being the important gift that it is, we are taught that we need to share these things,” Hudak said.
Keeping warm during the winter is difficult to do even in this day and age with the heating systems we have available. Backtrack 100-plus years, the Ojibwe’s technique to heat their lodges resonates with one still used today – heating systems below the floor.
In the center of the lodge was a fire pit. Surrounding that and covering the rest of the floor were rocks, touching side-by-side. Beneath the rock layer of the floor was a birch bark tube that exited outside the lodge and came above the snow line, taking in just enough air to keep the fire going. The next floor layer was pine boughs, followed a thick moss, and topped off with animal hides.
As the tour comes to a close, guests get to witness how a snare trap works and see an example of a teepee-style lodge.
“We did make teepee-style lodges. This one would have thicker barks on it and it would be up year-round. It would be on a well-traveled pathway and anyone could use it for a night or so. Hopefully they’d do some repair work or leave some food before they left. Anyway, we jokingly refer to it as the Best Western,” Hudak said.
The final stop was where guests learn about the rites of passage for young boys and girls – the coming of age rituals.
“Every tour guide will give you a different tour. In other words, Linda being the teacher, she’s going to come at it a little bit different than Bob does. And I’ll tell the story of the Ojibwe a little bit differently than my wife does. So you’ll hear the same things, but from a different perspective, which is very unique,” Nick said.
As an example of Nick’s point, Hudak said, “I do talk about similarities between the cultures and such. I like to emphasize that. We all impart basically the same information regarding the Ojibwe people pre-European contact, but I like to tie in different cultures.”
Regardless of their own technique, every tour guide shares a common thread with their presentations – their immense sense of pride to be sharing their culture with guests.
“We’re really proud of this place,” both Hudak and Nick agreed.
Wa-Swa-Goning Indian Village is open through September, Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and is open until the end of September for a reason – it gives schools a chance to take students for a tour before winter and the cold months set in.
Wa-Swa-Goning will work around schedules and open up on a Monday if that’s the only time a school can make it.
“What we do with school tours is a little bit different,” Nick said. “Their time is limited, so we’ll play some type of game in the back so the kids aren’t just sitting there listening, and there’s more interaction with the students.”
For more information, visit www.waswagoning.us or call 715-588-3560.
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.